The next morning I watched the snow bluster and the trees rattle from the warmth of my futon on the tatami mat floor. I heard a thump as a load of snow dropped off my roof. I smiled and snuggled deeper in my blankets. My reverie was interrupted by a phone call. A phone call? I followed the sound to a land line, previously unnoticed. It was Toru. “Breakfast will be delayed by one hour. We are all snowed in. Don’t worry. Someone will come to dig you out.” Well! Having no responsibilites and nowhere to be, I didn’t mind in the least. Some time later I heard a snow plow come by. I dilly dallied and eventually got ready for the day. I went to my front door, wrapped head to toe for the cold and went to open the door. Nothing. I tugged and twisted the knob a little harder. Nothing. Uh oh. My door was frozen shut! I could hear someone across the way shoveling. I knocked and called, “Konnichiwa!” Footsteps crunched my way. I knocked. They knocked back. I tried the door handle. They tried the door handle. They chattered to me in Japanese. I chattered back in English. We both tried the door handle again. It was stuck good and tight. The man on the other side of the door said the only thing we both understood which was, “Ok! Ok!” and hurried away. I sat down to wait and he returned with reinforcements. I couldn’t see what they were doing, but I was eventually extracted with much bowing, apologizing, and laughing.
Today was supposed to be our most challenging day as we were scheduled to climb to the top of a local mountain. We had a professional mountain guide in addition to Toru today, and he advised against it. It had been snowing non-stop since yesterday and through Toru, he told us the snow at the top would be chest deep. None of us were in that kind of shape so we voted unanimously to do a shorter, safer route. The weather was fearsome, blowing gusts and tornados of snow across the landscape, the cold looking for any crack in my armor of gortex. Our mountain guide was a machine. Breaking a trail through knee high snow is the equivalent of sprinting with 10 pounds on each foot. He did it, head down against the wind, without showing any signs of fatigue, for our whole hike. The dark clouds scudded across the sky making an Ansel Adams worthy light show across the mountains. I was so impressed with my companions from Singapore. They live in the tropics and I never heard one word of discontent or complaint from any of them. Instead, they suggested we pause in the middle of this veritable blizzard to make snow angels. So, we all kerplopped backwards in the snow waving our arms and legs around giggling, while Toru made up an impromptu song called “Snow Angel” and seranaded us. It was all so delightful and silly!
Thoroughly wind-blown and exhausted, but happy, we left our Hansel and Gretel cabins that afternoon for the small ski resort town of Nozawa Onsen. You should come to this place. It’s the oldest ski resort in Japan, a little town, built into the hillside. A town built around winding lanes and switchbacks, where you can walk (precariously) from anywhere to anywhere, bamboo steamers on the street corners selling sweet pork buns, snow falling gently down giving the bonsai little white caps, 13 free public onsen to soak your cares away, $55 ski lift tickets…need I say more? I watched a car get stuck on an icy switch back. Instantly, people poured out of every store front to help, Japanese and foreigners alike. A crowd gathered around to push and some of us to cheer. Once the car had successfully made the summit, the driver jumped out and there was bowing and smiles all around. What a wonderful, civilized place…
Our hotel at Nozawa Onsen was the height of luxury. My room was not much smaller than my little cabin in the woods at home. I don’t usally travel like that and I couldn’t stop grinning, moving in my cotton yukata and slippers from the ante room to the tatami mat sleeping area, to my sitting room. Where to sit next? Suffice it to say that dinner was an extravaganza. We had our own private little room and the wait staff slid the rice paper doors open and closed silently to bring course after course, after course, after course. The evening’s menu was provided and I thought we would be asked to choose a few items, but no. We were served EVERY SINGLE ITEM ON THE MENU. It was just provided so you could follow along, like a program at the symphony. And naturally, every dish was a beautiful, miniature work of art. Just an example- on a wooden cutting board covered with porcelain and glass dishes of so many shapes, sizes, and colors, one was a tiny house that had been sprinkled with powdered sugar to look like snow. You lifted the roof off and inside was a course of smoked duck. Unforgettable.
We were sad indeed, to say goodbye to Nozawa Onsen the next morning, and I thought it very possible I might be back. This day, we had a morning transfer. We were to drive deep into the mountains, to the end of the road (the place where the sidewalk ends) where we would meet a modern day bear hunter. The drive was white knuckle. The guard rails are removed during the winter so they can snow plow, but that means you are driving on a narrow mountain road, around blind corners, in the ice and snow, with nothing at all between you and a plunge down into the river. I thought we were sure to die, but since I’m writing this…well. We arrived at lunch time and a diminutive Japanese grandmother was waiting for us with mountain food. She wanted to take a picture with me. So funny! I must have appeared a giant white ghost to her as she came up to somewhere below my shoulder.
The bear hunter joined us as we were finishing and told us about what his life was like. The skin of his first bear was proudly displayed on the wall, some 30 years old now. Lest you feel judgemental, back in the olden days, a man could take care of his family for one year if he could bag a bear. Things have changed, but I could not begrudge him his livelihood. He led us on a hike to a frozen waterfall. The trail climbed and climbed, through the forest, past a lovely little shrine, when suddenly the bear hunter stopped. He pointed and whispered. I couldn’t understand a thing he said but it was clear he had see something. I followed his finger and ha! An animal was moving on the mountainside directly across from us. It was a Kamushka or a Japanese Serow. What a thrill to see a wild animal I didn’t even know existed! The Kamushka is a fuzzy little creature, something between a goat and a deer, but for all the world looked like a fox without a tail to me. We stopped and watched it for a good long time, enthralled.
That night our rooms seemed somewhat spartan compared to Nozawa Onsen, but there was a communal area with a fire place and bottles of sake to be had, and we stayed up late into the night telling stories and laughing and enjoying one another’s company. Outside, the world was like a work of caligraphy, minimalist, black and white. Simple and beautiful.